Which of the ‘Wicked’s Was Worst?

I finished reading Gregory Maguire’s ‘Wicked – The Life and Times of The Wicked Witch Of The West‘ on Monday – and have finally digested it. I think it deserves a place in my personal Top 10 – despite the heartburn it gave me.

There are two misconceptions I had going into this reading – mainly based on the fact I saw the musical version first, and that has coloured my view.

Misconception One: This would be a children’s read. Maguire does write children’s books, the musical was family-friendly, and the book on which is it very loosely based – The Wizard Of Oz – is children’s reading. I even bought the novel as a gift for the kids, seeing as they are such fans of the show. However, where the musical veered close to some adult concepts, the book tackles them head-on. Not recommended for children – Maguire’s Oz is a grown-up world with sex and death and politics and killer bees.

Misconception Two: The musical is based on the book. It isn’t. In fact, I have a hard time placing much of the book’s plot, and even the character’s relationships, in their appropriate place in the musical version. The ending is very different. The relationships between the characters are very different. What remains between the book and the musical are the strong characters and some clever postmodern re-tooling of the Oz landscape – political, social, and, yes, spiritual.

Without giving too much away, it’s like re-working the Star Wars saga so Luke Skywalker turns out to be fathered by Obi-Wan and C-3PO becomes Darth Vader instead. Or something like that. Actually, nothing like that. No spoiler here. Move on.

I use the Star Wars reference because I did enjoy the way Maguire plays around with the notion of ‘evil’ and shifts the landscape by giving it context and a back-story, like what George Lucas did with Anakin Skywalker. It’s not black and white (nor green). Both versions (as well as Star Wars) do an admirable job of exploring the twists of fate or fortune – and the personal decisions – that determine whether someone ends up with ‘good’ or ‘wicked’ on their CV.

It’s likely that the movie that comes out (eventually) will be based on the musical version, rather than the book. It’s difficult to decide which version of the truth I would like to see on the big screen.

It is a fun book to read – not least to observe how the L Frank Baum story is interwoven with this one. For example, unlike the original, the witch has a name: Elphaba. It took a while to realise the source: L – F – B. Cute. And there is a monkey called Chistery. And talking Animals.

And, thankfully, none of the Rowling Effect of inventing a new magic device every few pages to advance the plot. In fact, it’s surprising to note how small a role magic and sorcery plays in the book.

It is all advanced by strong characterisations, an intricately intelligent plot and masterful storytelling skills. The language is a little bloated in places, and the pacing suffers as a result. But it is a powerful story well told.